Preview: Michigan Must Protect the Ball to Avoid Trap Door
The Michigan Wolverines have one of the most difficult games in the country this week. A road trip to Kinnick Stadium as a top ranked team. That setting hasn’t faired well for the visitors in recent years.
Since 2008, Iowa is 5-1 against top-five competition at home. One of those victories came against a No. 2 ranked Wolverines team in 2016. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh suffered a similar defeat as the quarterback for the 1985 Wolverines, when his team was also ranked second in the country and lost to the Hawkeyes on the road.
If Harbaugh and Co. want to prove to everyone that last year wasn’t a fluke, and that switching quarterbacks wasn’t the wrong move, it starts Saturday afternoon in Iowa City. In a place Harbaugh himself said top-five teams go to die.
It Starts on Offense
The most important thing Michigan needs to do to come away victorious on Saturday is take care of the football. Iowa’s defense already has five interceptions on the season. They’re also tied for the Big Ten lead in sacks. Defense is their calling card, and Michigan can not let that be the trump.
Quarterback J.J. McCarthy hasn’t thrown an interception yet this year. But he also hasn’t faced a defense the caliber of Iowa. Even in his limited action, McCarthy is building a rep for not being able to hold onto the ball effectively. His fumble against Michigan State last season was crucial and contributed to his team losing the game.
McCarthy fumbled twice last week as well but Michigan was able to recover both and avoid turnovers. Not giving the Hawkeyes free possessions and the crowd a reason to cheer will be vital to Michigan’s success. Iowa is already inept on offense. You don’t want to start handing them the rock and giving them more chances to course correct.
Whoever is calling plays for Michigan needs to dial up more plays to get wide receiver Roman Wilson the ball. The junior speedster only has eight catches on the year but is averaging 24.5 yards per reception. It’s one thing to spread the ball around and give your backups chances when you’re playing the basement of college football.
But now that Michigan is playing a solid Big Ten opponent it’s time to let the stars shine. Wilson should touch the ball 8-10 times whether it’s by screens, quick slants or jet sweeps.
Time to Get Home
This would be the perfect game for the Michigan defense to find their go-to pass rusher. The Wolverines have 11 sacks on the season, but no individual player has more than two. That’s a tie between Mike Morris and Mike Sainristil, the latter of which converted from receiver to cornerback this season. Right now there is no Aidan Hutchinson or David Ojabo lookalike on the roster. But someone needs to step up and anoint themselves as the main threat.
Iowa has given up the second most sacks in the Big Ten to date. Hawkeyes quarterback Spencer Petras isn’t known for his athletic ability. Michigan Defensive Coordinator Jesse Minter needs to dial up some pressure early and make Petras uncomfortable in the pocket.
It would be very welcoming to see Braiden McGregor put it all together this week and live up to his hype as a recruit. The former four-star prospect out of the state of Michigan might have the mold of Hutchinson, but now he needs to provide some game film that mirrors last year’s No. 2 overall draft pick.
Changing the Narrative
Michigan hasn’t won at Iowa since 2005. Going back to 1994, each meeting at Kinnick Stadium has been decided by one score. The Wolverines have to change that this time around. These are the games where you can earn some real big brownie points with the College Football Playoff committee. That messaged needs to be emphasized before kickoff.
Players to Watch
Iowa – Sam LaPorta TE
Michigan likes to use their tight ends. But Iowa has a pretty good one in LaPorta. The senior has 16 catches for 154 yards in four games this season. He’s projected to be a mid-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft. He’s not the biggest or the fastest tight end you’ll see, but he’s well-rounded and can do damage after the catch.
Michigan – Eyabi Okie DL
I mentioned McGregor as a guy I’m looking to fill the void with Hutchinson and Ojabo on the defensive line. Okie (he recently changed his last name from Anoma to Okie) is another guy I’m very intrigued to see in conference play. Talent isn’t really the question. How much of an opportunity he gets, and if can he take advantage of it is the dilemma. You don’t get recruited by Nick Saban unless there’s some talent in you. This could be the week we see that skill set unleashed.
Michigan 24 Iowa 16
I like Michigan to come out victorious, but Iowa will cover the +11 spread. The over/under is set at 42, and I have zero hesitation hammering the under.